Stan Grant: Music is more than my life's soundtrack — it's a roadmap

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Updated

August 11, 2017 15:39:17

Vienna Chocolate, remember that? Layers of ice cream; vanilla and chocolate with milo sprinkled on top.

I loved it, as a boy. They stopped making it sometime in the 1970s.

Why do I remember Vienna Chocolate? Because of a song.

That’s the ice cream I was eating when I first heard Glen Campbell singing Galveston.

It is a memory that is wrapped in all my senses: taste, hearing, sight, touch, smell.

It was a hot day in Coolah, a little town in western New South Wales.

You know that saying, beyond the black stump? That’s it — the edge of the frontier.

It had a special meaning for me; it was where two sides of my ancestry met.

Coolah was the traditional border between my dad’s people, the Wiradjuri, and my mum’s Kamilaroi.

I loved it.

I started school there.

We lived there twice — moved away, came back — all up I probably spent little more than a year there but every minute is alive in me; every memory: the swimming pool, the old school with its wooden desks and ink tops, the tuckshop and the quadrangle where we played handball.

The footy oval was special; on game days I’d scour the crowd for tossed off bottles that I could cash in for pocket money.

After training on cold nights I’d warm my hands in a packet of hot chips with vinegar wrapped in a newspaper.

My grandfather lived with us — mum’s dad.

I’d wait up at nights to help him in after he staggered home from the pub.

I would sit with him in the sun for hours, listening to three-way turf talk on the radio and picking the horses out of the form guide.

He’d fill the silences with stories about the old times about his people; what they did and where they were from.

I remember it all.

And I remember Galveston.

That day, when I first heard it, I was outside my Aunty Joyce’s house.

She was my grandfather’s cousin and I used to love going to her place. She’d always have something special, a cake or a big plate of kangaroo tail rissoles.

Her husband Uncle Ted kept bees; I’d been warned to keep clear but I couldn’t help myself.

There was one time when I lifted the lid off a hive and dozens of them flew up my T-shirt, my dad and Uncle Ted had to pin me down, screaming, to tear off my shirt.

I went to hospital to have the stings removed; another vivid memory.

I got banged up a bit that year.

I was back in hospital when my brother pushed me down a steep hill in a billy cart with no brakes and a rope as a steering wheel.

I ended up strung on a barbed wire fence. The doctor had to cut it out of my arms and ribs.

It meant a tetanus shot that was probably more painful than the accident.

I broke my arm messing around with my cousins.

My neighbour — just a few years older than me — went out shooting rabbits and never came home.

The gun exploded as he ducked under a fence; the ricocheted bullet killed him.

Anyway, Galveston.

Outside Aunty Joyce’s house, the sun shining, devouring that ice cream and I hear it.

I must have been seven years old.

It wasn’t just the song — those lyrics of longing, yearning, love, fear and war — or Campbell’s voice; it was the guitar that got me.

Put it on and listen to it; that baritone guitar break: elegant, deceptively simple and evocative.

I loved guitar. My father played. My grandfather bought me a toy guitar for my first birthday and I have never stopped playing since.

Campbell was a master guitarist; his stardom probably overshadowed his musicianship but listen to a live acoustic recording of Gentle on my Mind and be amazed.

He could have so easily overplayed his hand on Galveston but Campbell had heeded the greatest lesson of music: less is more.

I am thinking about Galveston and Coolah and my family this week because Campbell has passed away.

It has got me thinking about the soundtrack of my life.

There were other Campbell songs: Wichita Lineman, By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Where’s The Playground Susie; all of them written by Jimmy Webb.

I have been reading his book recently.

Webb first heard Campbell’s voice as a teenager, driving a tractor on his father’s farm. He knew then he wanted to write songs and he wanted that voice to sing them.

So many of those sings are about places and maybe that’s what drew me in.

Music for me, has not been just a soundtrack, it is a roadmap.

My family was itinerant and we moved so often it is songs that stick in my mind more than towns.

The towns I remember most clearly are usually those connected to a song.

Gladstone, Queensland. My dad had found work as a dam builder. We were there only for a matter of months (too far out of our country). I wouldn’t have been only a few years old but I recall a bright day, walking down a hill with my mother and hearing Petula Clark sing Downtown.

When you’re alone and life is making you lonely
you can always go downtown.

My God. The 1960s were about hope and that’s what it sounded like.

Born free as free as the wind blows

As free as the grass grows

Born Free to follow your heart.

Born Free, Matt Monro’s theme song from the movie of the same name; I must have been four or five years old when I first heard it.

Again it was Coolah, in the cinema with stitches in my bandaged head after my sister had accidentally struck me with the sharp edge of a steel swing in the local park.

My cousin Bob McLeod — an aspiring musician — used to sing his own version.

Coming out of the mouth of a young Aboriginal man Born Free was suddenly a very different song.

Guitar: listen to those heavily strummed opening chords to George Harrison’s hymn My Sweet Lord.

Phil Spector the producer always did things to excess — one layer of music piled on another — but he knew how to make a song boom out of a transistor radio.

I was in Sydney at Hyde Park. I recall clearly stepping out of a car and those chords wafting on a Sydney summer breeze.

Griffith was our spiritual home; I was born there and we would gravitate back and forth.

We lived for a time next to a house with teenage boys. It was a time when Rod Stewart was big and good — before he went Blonde.

Maggie May was on high rotation, bouncing off the walls of that house day and night.

The guitar again. Have a listen to the lead break, it is smart, lyrical and economical.

It never out stays its welcome.

Martin Quittenton take a bow. He abandoned music not long after and is a recluse, but what a gift he gave us.

And the bass line is a killer. Ronnie Wood played it, later he would join the Rolling Stones and never play as well again.

I caught the punk bug when we moved (again, I attended more than 15 schools) to Canberra.

Like a generation of kids I tuned in to Countdown each Sunday night.

Lots of forgettable dross and my sister’s favourites (yes I concede now that Dancing Queen is a mighty song) but then whack: The Jam delivered Start, sounding like a new wave Beatles, all angles and biting guitar (they ripped off the bass line to Taxman but who cares).

London Calling to the faraway towns

Now war is declared and battle come down

The Clash in black and white, Joe Strummer singing into the driving rain on the Thames.

The album London Calling will forever be in my top 10 and that clip is the best ever.

And guitars. Listen to the Only Ones’ Another Girl Another Planet.

Music has been my companion on a journey that’s taken me around the world.

My mate Peter Charley and me with our South African crew listening to classic era Rod Stewart, our backdrop to the end of apartheid.

The death of Princess Diana will always be linked to The Verve’s Urban Hymns, which was released to a nation in mourning.

In Vietnam I started listening a lot to Iggy Pop and the Stooges. God knows why.

But there is a moment at the start of Gimme Danger amidst James Williamson’s crunching guitar when Iggy just says “yeah” and in one word, one moment, captures more of the spirit of rock’n’roll than just about anyone.

I turned my colleagues — Pakistanis, Chinese, Iraqis, Iranians — onto Australian music, good music: The Saints, The Triffids, Radio Birdman, Hoodoo Gurus, the Go-Betweens, the Church, the Sunnyboys.

When I got homesick I would listen to Midnight Oil:

Out where the river broke, the bloodwood and the desert oak

I opened my ears to new sounds: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Tinariwen.

We used to play a game on long drives across Pakistan — me, my cameraman Farhad Shadravan and Imran Khan (no, not the cricketer) the Al Jazeera reporter — would name a song for each letter of the alphabet.

There are a lot of popular songs starting with ‘s’ — think about it.

Or maybe it is just me. They are wistful songs: Something, Suspicious minds, Strangers in the night, or the Everly Brothers’ So sad to watch good love go bad.

The song She’s been talking to my friends by the Kiwi band The Mutton Birds is forever linked to the Afghan-Pakistan border and refugees trapped in camps they will never escape from.

I introduced Farhad to the Mutton Birds and their album Envy of Angels; it is all we listened to with its mesmerising minor key melodies and ethereal guitars.

We did a lot of miles, Farhad and me.

Wherever we went we would trawl the local music shops for a new guitar.

I remember waking into one store on Music Street in Kabul.

When the Taliban seized control all music was silenced, musicians were executed but now the shops were open again.

I saw an old battered instrument with rusty strings; the shopkeeper got it down for me.

It had been left behind by a soviet soldier during the invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

I tuned it as best I could and started to pick out Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven (what else?) and something magical happened.

The store owner picked up a rabab — a lute-like traditional Afghan instrument — and started playing along.

Neither of us spoke each other’s languages — we could not utter a word — yet here we were speaking in music, music that defied the Taliban.

Farhad filmed it. I don’t see him anymore — we are on opposite sides of the world — but he is my brother, forever. Brothers in the road and music.

So many songs.

When my daughter was born I put on Van Morrison:

She’s as sweet as Tupelo Honey

She’s an angel of the first degree

When I met my wife I was listening to the American band the Jayhawks:

I’m gonna make you love me

I’m gonna dry your tears

We’re gonna stay together for a million years

The greatest song I have ever heard? The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset:

But I don’t feel afraid

As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset I am in paradise

I saw Ray Davies, the Kinks’ songwriter, sing that masterpiece live in London right near Waterloo Station and the world was perfect.

Davies was influenced by country music, the blues and folk, and he had an eye for that intimate detail that made the listener believe he was singing just to them.

Every day I look at the world from my window

But chilly, chilly is evening time

Waterloo sunset’s fine

Country music was the sound of my childhood too.

Music of hard times; music that told our story.

Merle Haggard:

A canvas covered cabin in a crowded labour camp stand out in these memories I revive

For my daddy raised a family there with two hard working hands

And tried to feed my mumma’s hungry eyes

Yep.

Why do these songs matter so much? They aren’t necessarily the greatest songs or songs I would ordinarily play but when I hear them they call me home.

In fact in my rootless, restless life, they are home.

That’s it: nostalgia.

It’s a trick of the mind, I know, to think life was better then, but sometimes we can cling to that.

After walking through the blood of a terrorist bombing I would search my iPod for America’s Sister Golden Hair, just to hear that opening slide guitar riff and remember where I was when I first heard it; far from a world gone mad.

This week I have been a boy again, eating an ice cream at my old Aunty’s house hearing Campbell sing Galveston.

I still see her standing by the water

Standing there looking out to sea

And is she waiting there for me

It is a song about yesterdays and a place where everything felt alright.

Back then I was a boy, my grandfather was still alive and Campbell was a young man and the world, for me, hadn’t happened yet.

Topics:

country,

music,

death,

australia,

gladstone-4680,

coolah-2843,

sydney-2000

First posted

August 11, 2017 15:11:39



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